If only…

I read a story recently, cited in the Harvard Mental Health Letter, about a man from Liverpool. Every week he played the lottery. And every week he chose exactly the same numbers. One week he forgot to buy his lottery ticket…you know what’s coming next…and that particular week his numbers were the winning numbers. The man was so overwhelmed at the thought of missing out on millions (which, it turned out, wasn’t exactly the case), that he committed suicide. If only he had bought his ticket.

If only. Two little, unimpressive words. Just six letters in all. But put them together and they have incredible power. In fact they have the power to hold you in a kind of emotional gridlock for the rest of your life. And sadly, in some cases, they drive people to taking their own lives.

We all have regrets, whether we care to admit it or not. They can range from the subjects we chose at school to marriage, from career choices to the way we have failed others or failed to live up to our own standards. Regret can take the shape of things we have done or things we have failed to do.

What exactly do we do with regret?

The Bible is thick with people who have had reason to regret, so it’s not as though we are left to try and figure out a strategy for dealing with regret on our own.

Left untouched, regret can have a corrosive influence in our lives. It can undermine any present joy by reminding us of the bad decisions of our past. However, when touched by grace, even regret can yield some unlikely treasures.

Firstly, when regret is touched by grace, it brings about an awareness of our weakness. We are not comfortable with weakness, especially our own! Without grace we are prone to make reckless and destructive decisions.

Peter was a man who knew a thing or two about regret (Luke 22.31-62). He had promised Jesus that he would not only be prepared to go to prison for Him, but would even die for Him. Jesus predicted that Peter would do otherwise and in the event Peter denied the Lord three times. Why did he deny the Lord? He was weak. Circumstances revealed his weakness. And any future regret would remind him of his weakness.

By allowing regret to remind us that we are weak and need grace, we begin to redeem a potentially destructive emotion.

Secondly, when regret is touched by grace, it causes us to acknowledge distortions in our value system. What do I mean by that? Sometimes we carry regret because we think of what we might have been or done had we acted differently in the past. Usually the “might have been or done” is something that would make us look better than we currently feel that we are.

Regret can reveal that we value appearing to be perfect over actually becoming mature. Without grace we might become like the prodigal son. But it is just as possible that without grace we would become like the elder brother. Paul looked back on his faultless – his own word – life (Philippians 3.5), but with no satisfaction. It meant nothing to God. It was simply rooted in his own flesh and not in Christ.

If we can allow regret to revise our value system to reflect God’s value system which prizes maturity more than the appearance of perfection, then we find that grace is really turning around the negative power of regret.

Thirdly, regret that is touched by grace alters our understanding of how much control we have over the world around us.

Research has found that people in Western culture are far more likely to live with regret than people in other cultures. Why? Because in the West we believe we are so free that our choices can create an almost ideal life. People in other cultures do not believe that and often their choices are restricted by family or other cultural considerations. If regret helps us to recall that All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be (Psalm 139.16), it is no bad thing. God’s ways are not always our ways.

Finally, regret that is touched by grace causes us to act.

The story of Zacchaeus meeting Jesus illustrates the point (Luke 19.1-10). Zacchaeus was so overwhelmed by the acceptance he found from Jesus that he promised to make amends to those from whom he had extorted money.

It’s not always possible to do a Zacchaeus. However, we can redeem regret by letting the lessons of the past compel us to act differently to those around us in our present.

Even if we can’t do the things that we wish we’d done and it seems to late too do them now, we can still pass on our hard won, sometimes painfully won, wisdom to another generation.


Putting personal history in its place

Just recently I noticed a phenomenon whenever I did a search for something on google or visited particular websites. Adverts, suspiciously like what I had been previously searching for, would pop up at other websites I visited or on my Facebook page.

I suppose I should marvel at the power of modern communications and the ability to track my tastes and present me with the kind of offers and options that are tailored to my tastes and my own browsing history. Or perhaps I should be concerned that big brother really is watching me!

Personal history can have a habit of shaping our lives and others expectations of us. Sometimes that is not a bad thing, since our personal history can be very positive and healthy. Sometimes however, our personal history can cast a long shadow that seems to stalk us and darken whatever we put our hand to.

Many of the great characters of the Bible felt the unhelpful hand of personal history on their shoulders.

Paul had a more illustrious personal history than most of his peers. Certainly in the early church his religious pedigree was unmatched. Even so, personal history threatened to undermine Paul’s message of grace and he took a ruthless attitude towards it (Philippians 3.1-8).

Jacob was another who struggled with personal history. Genesis 25-27 records his earliest years. The picture we have is of a young man growing up in a divided family. Jacob himself is carrying a dubious identity: his name can either have the connotation of deceiver, or it can be understood as a statement about God’s protection.

Yet we know from the rest of Genesis that Jacob, despite such shaky beginnings went on to greatness. Somehow the dark angel of his personal history was not strong enough to cancel out God’s  purpose for Jacob.

How do we ensure that our personal history does not become a haunting presence that undermines the grace of God?

Firstly, we need to accept that we cannot change our personal history. You can’t rewrite the past. You can’t erase the past.

Secondly, we need to believe that we are chosen. Our identity is not based on our natural background. It is has its roots in God’s grace: For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love  he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1.4-5)

Believing that we are chosen by God is the key to living above the constraints and restrictions of personal history.

Thirdly, choose to change. Grace frees us to make good decisions. God does not give us His grace just to save us from the past. Or even to secure us for eternity. Though both of these aspects of grace are wonderful. He gives us His grace so that by our choices we can shape our future: 11 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age (Titus 2.11-12)

Embrace grace and put your personal history in it’s proper place.

Raising the Ceiling

If you type the words “glass ceiling” into google or YouTube you will find lots of references to how this term is used to describe the experience of women who have found it difficult to secure some of the more lucrative and prestigious jobs in industry. Even though they are as qualified as their male peers, it seems there is some kind of invisible barrier that prevents their progression.

The “glass ceiling” effect is one that can act as powerfully restrictive in any area of life whether we are male or female.

How can we break through the restriction that is imposed by the “glass ceiling” effect?

If we are going to break through the kind of restriction that tries to muzzle the kingdom of God, we need to recognise that restriction. Recognising the shape of our restrictions is key if we want to break through our restrictions. In Mark 3.1-6, and indeed throughout the gospels, Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath. He wasn’t supposed to do that, and there was a powerful body of opinion that disapproved of Him doing that.

You can usually recognise where restriction is by the reaction of others to your good intentions. To break those restrictions, you might have to risk disapproval.

Secondly, to break out of restriction sometimes you have to take a reverse journey.

In the story of the prodigal son, the wayward boy comes to his senses while eking out an existence as an impoverished pig farmer in a foreign country (Luke 15.17-20)

He would have spent the rest of his days in hungry restriction had he not decided to make a reverse journey home.

Sometimes breaking out of restriction means that we have to retrace our steps. Heal some relationships. Build some bridges. Mend what has been broken.

Thirdly, breaking out of restriction might mean resisting intimidation. Hebrews 11 says that Moses left Egypt not fearing the King’s anger v.27). It took faith to do that. We have to face the fear challenge if we are going to break out of restriction. Whatever that fear might be.

Finally, breaking out of restriction can entail redeeming our restrictive set of circumstances.

After years of serving God, and after two years in prison, Paul could say when testifying to King Agrippa: “But I have had God’s help to this very day”  (Acts 26.22). Paul might have been restricted in his physical circumstances, but he was not restricted in his mind. Why? Because he understood that God was working redemptively through the circumstances in which he found himself.

Restriction is a state of mind as much as it is anything else. Even when we can’t change our circumstances we can expect God to work redemptively through them.